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Since its revolution five years ago, Tunisia has experienced political development that might have been considered as a model for democratic evolution in many counties where uprisings occurred in 2011.
However, the spread of protests since mid-January 2016 reveals the depth of its unresolved and festering socioeconomic crisis, and exposes how little has changed in the power structures of Tunisia. Public opinion seems to be that almost nothing has been changed since Ben Ali was ousted. Despair runs deeply in all layers of Tunisian society. And the outlook for changes is bleak, with economic growth not exceeding 1% of the GNP according to the National Bank of Tunisia. As in many other countries of the region political stability runs in parallel with economic growth.
The underlying reasons for disenchantment are:
Tunisian protests take place around similar protests over jobs and better life conditions and echo demands - word for word - made 5 years ago.
More than 60% of graduates are unable to find work.
Youth unemployment is as high as 37% according to OECD. This is a fertile ground for Islamists and extremists forces.
The interior regions from which revolution started continue to be marginalised.
Income from tourism, once an important source of revenue (7.4% of GNP), has dramatically dwindled after the terrorist attacks of 2015 and deprived many Tunisians of income.
Unreformed security forces continue to abuse their powers under cover of fighting terrorism.
Corruption remains widespread.
Many think that the old political order has returned since the 2014 elections: The President of the Republic was member of former administrations and there is a struggle for power that prevents good governance. The leading party Nidaa Tounes has split and only the help of Ennhada Islamists allows the functioning of secular government resulting from the compromise of 2014 between the two parties. This very unstable political situation might last until local elections scheduled at the end of this year that Ennhada expects to win. If this happens there is a possibility of a return of Islamism to the economic and political scenario. Tunisians have become sceptical –not to say fed up- with democracy and the ability of the political establishment to rescue the country after the fall of dictatorship.
THE EU NEGATIVE ROLE
The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument granted Tunisia the partner status in 2012 as a way to expand the current free trade agreements and increase the financial support in return for progress on political, governance and economic reforms. Previously in 1995 the EU-Tunisian Association Agreement was signed with a same aim. But in both cases there is no evidence of how free trade has allowed an increase of Tunisia’s economic and social wealth.
On the contrary, the failure of the Tunisian model could be a result of the liberalisation that followed the 1995 Agreement. There has been not a significant positive impact on productivity, employment or manufacturing growth and the EU programmes are considered by the International Monetary Fund as privileges granted to “crony capitalism” since they have reached only big companies, mainly dominated by foreign capital.
Therefore EU support for local civil society has been perceived by many Tunisians as an attempt by Europeans to impose cultural hegemony, Western values and Western style of governance on a population that now is hostile to those ideas, an views them as foreign for an Arab country.
THE TUNISIA EXTERNAL THREAT
The security crisis in neighbouring countries is also affecting Tunisia internal political stability. The Libyan civil war andthe power vacuums in the Algerian mountains have encouraged terrorist attacks on Tunisian soil that target the fundaments of its economy. The encroachment of Daesh in the Sirte region and other areas of Libyan territory is a dangerous situation for Tunisia.
One of the lines of action of Daesh in its expansion strategy is fostering fighters to carry out destabilising terrorist operations and try to achieve the control of territory in their countries of origin. So it did in Libya it is doing now in Tunisia.
Indeed, Daesh is making efforts to consolidate in Libya, and reach the South of the country. It is clear that in view of the increasing number of Daesh middle rank commanders (Egyptians, Tunisians, Sudanese and Algerian), who are coming to Sirte looking for a safer place to continue planning their activities in the medium and long term, Libya will become the next base for Daesh, once expelled from Iraq and Syria. No doubt after that the next move in its expansive domino game will be Tunisia, as shown by the terrorist attack that occurred recently on the Tunisian-Libyan frontier.
The Ansar al Shariah group that has pledged allegiance to Daesh, and which is considered by the Government to be a terrorist organization, is also a very real threat to the political order and civil society because it is becoming a movement that attracts more and more people disenchanted with: the outcome of the 2011 revolution, EU initiatives towards Tunisia and the government failure. This growing Salafist Jihadist movement, with connections to other transnational jihadists groups, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state and refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the present state institutions that they consider as alien to the people given the unfulfilled promises to deliver changes demanded by those who started the uprising five years ago.
Unfortunately the Tunisian government, unable to meet the demands of its population, finds itself facing a predicament, since it has no real capacity to defend itself against the destabilising capacity of Daesh. Moreover, Tunisia has provided many fighters to that group in Syria and Iraq (estimated between 5000 and 6000). Once they return as hardened fighters they might become the Daesh’s "fifth column" inside the country.
A POSSIBLE WAY TO HELP TUNISIA
The Tunisian government cannot wait much longer to deliver to avoid giving excuses for terrorist attacks recurrent every now and then, and avoiding radicalisation leading to Islamist and Salafist options. Ordinary citizens and the young need to feel the difference quickly through tangible things like:
• addressing the environmental challenges;
• stopping water shortages;
• preventing desertification in rural areas;
• establishing waste collection in urban area;
• giving children in elementary school a tablet to everyone, with proper teaching.
These measures will help to convince many people and get a better distribution of benefits from reform.
Nevertheless, there is a lack of means to carry out these simple tasks. Therefore the Tunisian government needs to receive help from Europe if it wants to avoid a new radical Islamism at its door. Many pledges and promises have been made in return for democratic reforms but public opinion does not believe any longer in fine words alone.
There is now a financial challenge for the EU in Tunisia to help its government to solve its economic problems. It is estimated that 6-9 billion euros is the amount needed over a 3 year period. This pledge would have to be invested in people oriented projects to support the Tunisian transformation before is too late and the country falls to the chaos spreading in the North African region.
Besides, the EU should pressure the Tunisian Government for greater respect for human rights and review the financial aid model that, so far, has not yielded the desired results in the fight against unemployment. Member states individually should make every effort to provide material and military support to strengthen the actions being undertaken by the Tunisian Government to combat Daesh’s threat coming mainly across its border with Libya.
This paper was prepared for Eurodefense – Spain by AmbassadorÂ Mariano GARCIA MUÑOZ Â of Spain (Retired) for a forthcoming conference